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Soul Searching at "F" School Where Teachers See Progress

Monday, October 03, 2011

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Peggy from Asheville

See Lisa Delpit's critiques of process writing in "Other People's Children"

Oct. 03 2011 11:13 AM
Robert Pondiscio from New York

I taught 5th grade at PS 277 from 2002-2007. This report is both heartbreaking and frustrating. My former colleagues at the school are among the most decent, caring, hard-working people I've met. Their efforts on behalf of their students is heroic and inspiring.

But the Teacher's College Reading and Writing Workshop, to which the school is wedded to, is what made me a curriculum activist. Its emphasis on process writing--small moments and memoirs--may be engaging for some students, but ultimately it does them a grave disservice. Children of poverty tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less general knowledge of the world that their peers in more affluent neighborhoods. These deficits lie at the heart of their difficulties in reading comprehension and other language skills. Thus the most important thing we can do as teachers is immerse children in rich content, across subjects--science, history, art, music--deliberately and coherently. The Teacher's College Reading and Writing "curriculum" (as one staff developer told me, "It's not a curriculum, it's a philosophy") does not do this.

With its relentless focus on student selected topics the writer's workshop has the unintended consequence of narrowing a child's field of vision to his or her immediate surroundings and experience. It is exactly the opposite of what we should be giving the child: access to the empowering world of knowledge and ideas that affluent children come to school with, not because they are smarter, but because they have enjoyed the benefits of travel, rich dinner table conversations with educated parents, outings to museums, etc.

Similarly, the readers workshop approach mistakenly assumes that comprehension is a transferable skill, a function of formulaic "reading strategies" and other how-to tricks. (cf. "Teaching Content is Teaching Reading" a YouTube video produced by Dan Willingham). Like the writers workshop, students read books that they choose themselves, thus minimizing the opportunity to build their store of background knowledge, and the context in which language and vocabulary growth occurs.

This curriculum may work on the upper east side and Park Slope, but it makes the "Matthew Effect," the deficits low-SES kids come to school with in language and knowledge, worse not better.

My heart breaks for my PS 277 friends and colleagues who are slavishly devoted to their students. The fault is not theirs. They are laboring under a humane, well-intentioned, but ultimately ruinous theory of learning and a curriculum that is deeply flawed and deleterious to the needs of their students.

It is fashionable to look at schools like PS277, label it a failure, fire the staff and "start fresh." That would be a tragedy. They do not need new teachers or leadership. What they need is a coherent, sequential curriculum.

Oct. 03 2011 10:07 AM

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